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Ohio’s union fight: What you need to know

at 12:01 PM ET, 10/25/2011

On Nov. 8, Ohio voters will go to the polls to decide a collective barganing issue. The fight is another chance for unions to show their clout in the Midwest.

At issue is Senate bill 5 (SB5), legislation passed by Republican lawmakers and signed in April by Gov. John Kasich (R) that limits collective bargaining rights for about 350,000 Ohio public workers.

In July, opponents succeeded in getting a referendum called Issue 2 on the ballot aimed at overturning the law. Voting ‘yes’ means keeping the law; voting ‘no’ means eliminating it.
Kathy Slaven, 1st grade teacher from Dublin, Ohio, protested outside the state Capitol as Senate Bill #5 was passed. (Melina Mara - THE WASHINGTON POST)

Umbrella groups sprung up on each side to fight the issue. “Build a Better Ohio” is the pro-SB5 group. “We Are Ohio” is the anti-SB5 group.

Polling out on Tuesday suggested the law is broadly unpopular. While polls showed Ohioans warming to the law in recent months, the new Quinnipiac survey repsondents opposed the law 57 to 32 percent.

Labor sources caution that in a low turnout election with little precedent, polls can be misleading. “It’s been tightening,” a labor source told The Fix.

“This is not going to be a slam dunk victory on either side,” said another. “It would be irresponsible for anyone to claim victory or buy into polling because no one knows what the voting universe is going to look like on November 8th.”

Early voting has reportedly been very low. NBC News’ Chuck Todd is moderating a Tuesday night debate on the issue that both sides hope will increase voter interest.

“It’s crunch time,” said Build a Better Ohio spokeswoman Connie Wehrkamp. “We’re confident that Ohioans are realizing that this about fairness for them.”

National unions have invested heavily in this fight. It’s a chance to show their clout after falling short of taking back the state Senate in Wisconsin after a similar fight over collective bargaining rights. In that instance, Democrats unseated two state senators who voted to end bargaining rights, when they need to recall at least three.

Union activists argue that many of the Wisconsin recall campaigns ended up centering on issues other than the collective bargaining law that sparked the recall. In Ohio, the vote is a simple yes or no on the legislation itself.

And Kasich appeared to be rattled by the Wisconsin elections — shortly after the recalls, he asked union leaders to negotiate a compromise. (They declined.)

Republicans, meanwhile, hope to prove that voters realize the reforms are difficult but neccessary.

One complication that could affect turnout is Issue 3 — a referendum to add an amendment to the state constitution reversing mandatory participation in Obama’s health-care overhaul.

Kasich has also been stumping in favor of SB5.

What’s actually in SB5 has has been the subject of some debate, so here’s a brief rundown of the major points:

Health-care benefits and the number of required hours can no longer be negotiated. Public employees must pay at least 15 percent of health-care costs and put 10 percent of wages towards their pensions. Striking is banned, and pay is tied to performance rather than seniority.

Management can opt not to negotiate on other issues, including qualifications, staffing, equipment (except when personal safety is at issue — an update after firefighters expressed concern) class size (for teachers) and work assignments. The law also made it easier to decertify a public union and banned “fair share” union dues — mandating dues from employees who choose not to join.

Supporters argue that the reforms help the government save needed money, preventing layoffs while bringing public sector benefits in line with the private sector.

At the state government level, public workers already do pay 15 percent of health-care costs and put 10 percent of their wages towards pensions. Politifact Ohio found that the law would save money, but at the county and local level.

Opponents argue that the bill punishes public employees while doing nothing about unemployment.

Build a Better Ohio plans to release the names of its donors on Thursday, although the corporate structure of the organization does not demand it. National pro-business groups have worked in favor of the legislation. We Are Ohio has been filing regular campaign finance reports showing that its donations are mostly from labor.

We Are Ohio appeares to be significantly outspending Build a Better Ohio on television ads. Republicans got a boost today former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who visited a call center for pro-SB5 volunteers. He declined to actually endorse the measure, taking heat from the right — a sign of this fight’s tricky national implications.

 
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